The Rio Grande Valley FC Toros capped a breakthrough debut regular season with a 3-0 victory over rival San Antonio FC Saturday night to clinch the No. 2 seed in the USL’s Western Conference Playoffs. Eric Bird, Ruben Luna and Yair Arboleda scored in the game’s final 15 minutes as the Toros restored a winning feeling at home before the postseason, which begins next weekend.
The Toros (14-7-9; 51 points) went 7-2-1 in their final 10 games to finish one point shy of Sacramento Republic FC for the top seed in the West. The Republic won 4-0 at Tulsa on Saturday to clinch first place in the division.
RGV FC will host No. 7 seed OKC Energy FC (10-7-13; 43 points) in the first round of the playoffs at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Practice Fields at H-E-B Park in Edinburg, Texas.
RGV FC set many milestones in its debut season, including the best goal difference – plus 23 – in the Western Conference, and allowing just 24 goals, the second-fewest in the 29-team USL and fewest in the West. The Toros also led the conference with 16 shutouts in 30 games, keyed by a USL-record streak of 760 minutes without conceding a goal during a 10-game unbeaten streak in July and August. They also scored 47 goals, second most in the West, trailing LA Galaxy II.
“It’s very positive for all of us, to finish our first season in second place in the Western Conference,” RGV FC head coach Wilmer Cabrera told HoustonDynamo.com by phone. “It’s about consistency. All the numbers support the fact the team was the best defensively [in the West]. We also had the second-most goals [in the West].”
Bird opened the scoring in the 78th minute, delivering the Toros a deserved goal after sustained pressure. After a long run and cross from Arboleda, Rodriguez picked up the ball with space on the left edge of the box and picked out Bird near the penalty spot. The University of Virginia product drove a left-footed shot off the inside of the far post for a 1-0 lead and his sixth goal of the season.
Bird is an example of several RGV FC players that gained a larger role as the season progressed. After starting just one of the first 14 games of the season, Bird started most of the games during the summer and played 90 minutes in five of the last six outings. He finished with six goals and an assist in 1,265 minutes and 22 total appearances.
“Eric has been very important for the team lately,” Cabrera said. “He’s won balls in the middle and creates possibilities and can play multiple positions. He has the ability to be creative and he can score goals. Normally players have one strength, but he wins balls, he creates chances and he scores goals. That’s why he’s in a very good moment.”
Continuing a season-long trend, Cabrera gained significant returns from his substitutes on Saturday. Dynamo Academy product Memo Rodriguez came off the bench for the final 35 minutes and provided two assists. Another pair of substitutes – Luna and Arboleda – scored RGV FC’s final two goals.
In the second half of the season, the Toros routinely benefitted from the tempo and effort of the starting players, with the substitutes often capitalizing against tired opponents.
“It’s worked very well because the players have noticed that it works,” Cabrera said. “(Ruben) Luna has been doing the dirty work [as a starter in recent games] and then Dzenan can be the killer.”
The roles reversed in this game, with Dzenan starting and playing the first 62 minutes before Luna entered the match and made it 2-0 with his team-best seventh goal of the season, and first goal since September 3. The goal arrived after a beautiful cross from Dynamo loanee Kevin Garcia was headed by Luna into the ground before hitting the net.
“Whoever is on the bench can come in and make the difference. That’s very good for us because we have a rotation and they all know they’re going to play and they know they’ll make the difference when they go on the field.”
Arboleda, making his seventh appearance with RGV FC on loan from the Dynamo, finished the scoring a minute after his point blank chance was stopped by San Antonio goalkeeper Matt Cardone. Rodriguez pressured the SAFC defense and won possession near the corner of the six-yard box before selflessly passed to Arboleda, who found the upper corner from close range for his second goal with the Toros.
“He’s been very positive for us,” Cabrera said of Arboleda’s contributions. “He has a special talent. He’s a very electric, skillful player. He can move on the flank and he wasn’t able to score in the previous games. He was coming from Houston on Friday night and for him to start he was a bit heavy [legged]. I told him ‘You’re going to come on in the second half, hopefully to create an assist or a goal.’ That will be a key for him because he is confident.”
Cabrera also praised Rodriguez, who was waived by the Dynamo in preseason but showcased a professional attitude as he thrived with RGV this season. The 19-year-old finished the season with six goals and a team-high seven assists while playing all 30 games.
“He’s been fantastic – very important for us,” Cabrera said. “When he starts, he takes the role very well. When he comes from the bench he impacts the game. Everyone has their time to bring something to the game, no matter how many minutes they play and that’s made a difference for us.”
Before the game, Cabrera wanted to see his team restore its confidence at home after falling 1-0 to Portland Timbers 2 in the penultimate home game on September 10.
“It’s important to go the playoffs after a win at home because we had lost against Portland and we needed to build confidence and we need everyone to know that we are strong. The performance and the result says that. I liked the fact that we were focused and solid in the back. We didn’t make any silly mistakes. The team played with a playoff mentality. San Antonio created a few chances, but we were solid and at the end, when we took control of the ball, we were solid and scored the last three goals.”
After a 30-game regular season the Toros now face the single-elimination format of the playoffs. In three games with OKC Energy FC this season, they won once – 3-0 at home on June 22 – before playing to scoreless draws in each of the last two meetings, with the most recent encounter on August 6 in Edinburg.
“They are a very strong team, very organized,” Cabrera said of OKC Energy FC. “They had a very good start to the season, but lately they’ve had issues [gaining results]. But everyone starts with zero in the playoffs. It’s going to be dangerous. They will be a team that’s looking to move forward. We played a 0-0 game against them [on August 6] and we couldn’t score on them and we have to respect that.”
For everything the Toros accomplished in their first regular season, Cabrera insists the real chance for glory awaits his team in the playoffs.
“For us, we have done a lot. We finished second, one point behind Sacramento. We were trying to compete for the Western Conference championship. Everything we’ve done, we need to keep making history. The playoffs are what really matter to decide what kind of team we are.”
Saturday’s Western Conference Quarterfinal will begin at 7:30 p.m. CDT and will stream live at the USL’s YouTube channel.
- English midfielder Charlie Ward played every minute of the regular season. The 21-year-old played all 2,700 minutes in a defensive midfield role.
- RGV FC enters the postseason with a mark of 8-2-2 in its last 12 games, outscoring opponents 25-3 during that span.
- The Toros did not allow two goals or more in any of their final 14 games. The last time they allowed two goals was in a 2-1 loss to Orange County Blues FC on June 26.
- The Toros enjoyed a balanced scoring attack, with five players scoring six or more goals. Ruben Luna led the team with seven goals while Dzenan Catic, Memo Rodriguez, Eric Bird and Emilio Garcia each tallied six.
- The Toros went 3-0-1 in four games against San Antonio FC this season.
- RGV FC used four goalkeepers this season, including Tyler Deric and Calle Brown on loan from the Dynamo. Callum Irving led the way with eight shutouts in 14 appearances. Devin Perales kept three clean sheets in eight appearances, including starts in the last two games of the season.
Rio Grande Valley FC vs. San Antonio FC
September 24, 2016 – Practice Fields at H-E-B Park – Edinburg, Texas
RGV: Eric Bird 6 (Memo Rodriguez 6) 78
RGV: Ruben Luna 7 (Kevin Garcia 1) 83
RGV: Yair Arboleda 2 (Memo Rodriguez 7) 90+
Rio Grande Valley FC: Devin Perales; Kai Greene (George Malki 89), Taylor Hunter, Ivan Magalhaes, Kevin Garcia ©; Charlie Ward, Eric Bird; Kyle Murphy (Yair Arboleda* 62), Emilio Garcia (Jorginho James 64), TJ Casner (Memo Rodriguez 55); Dzenan Catic (Ruben Luna 62)
*Summary of Dynamo Academy alumni involvement in Saturday’s 1-0 win:
Memo Rodriguez made his 30th appearance of the season, recording two assists in the final 35 minutes. He has six goals (tied for second on the team) and seven assists (team-high) and is one of two players (Charlie Ward) to appear in all 30 games this season. He’s played a total of 1,845 minutes.
*Note: The Dynamo and RGV FC have a hybrid affiliation, with the Dynamo in control of all technical aspects of the soccer operation, including the construction of the roster and the coaching staff. Meanwhile, the McAllen, Texas based Rio Grande Valley Vipers run the business operations, including the current construction of a 9,400 seat soccer stadium in Edinburg, Texas that will resemble Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium.